Posted by: emjb | February 12, 2005

In the bleak midwinter

As the iron fist of Old Man Winter squeezes the city in its icy grip, I am enjoying a rare opportunity to rejoice in my extra layer of subcutaneous padding and preference for warmth over fashion. While normally I despise my bodily flaws like everyone else, on a cold, cold day, under my layers of clothes, I will always be warmer than the hip skinny girls of New York. Bundled in my nondescript wool coat, with my unfashionably thick scarf looped around me under my equally unfashionable Russian spy hat, I smile as they shiver in their long skinny scarves, thin cute coats, leather miniskirts, and high-heeled boots, teetering gingerly on the subway platform as the wind whistles over their bony knees, passing right through the $20 pink tights that the salesgirl at the Soho boutique assured them would make their outfit complete. The cigarettes they smoke to stay skinny burn down quickly in the wind, giving no comfort.

Meanwhile, I’m feeling a little warm, and loosen my scarf to let the air cool me off. Maybe I’ll have a muffin today, I think. Or some oatmeal. Something filling. I feel like a bear in winter, not
immune to the cold, but not afraid of it, either. I have my long johns and my big bulky sweaters, my boots with the gripper tread and my thermal socks. And my fat. For once, I have the genetic advantage. My Viking ancestors lasted through the hard winters by virtue of it, and they looked for mates who could store a little something away for the hard times, who had curves and a little belly on them.

In the years 1350 to 1850, temperatures worldwide dipped enough that some historians call it a Little Ice Age. In some years the Thames froze solid, and there were record snowfalls. Heat in those days was nothing but drafty fires and whatever layers you could pile on yourself. Famines weren’t uncommon. On the iron-cold days, I feel a kinship with my forebears, making it through on salted meat and stored grain, whatever they could dry and store, whatever could be hunted, waiting for spring. Burning their reserves.

The problem of course is that most of us don’t burn our reserves, because we never get low on food. So the skinny girls might win after all. Unless the next Ice Age hits, in which case I’ll last a few days longer.

Not that a few days would really mean all that much. Right now I’m reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, a fascinating and yet depressing account of various societal collapses in history. An astonishing number of human societies have gone bottom-up because they simply didn’t think about their resources; they killed all the local food species, deforested the area (which led to soil loss and crop loss), and wasted resources on war and gaudy monuments instead of managing their land. And if they didn’t have anywhere to migrate, or a war or disease or sudden cold dry spell came along, that was it; all gone. Nothing but ruins left. The Vikings of Greenland, the Maya, the Easter Islanders; all victims of their inability to understand their environment and develop some kind of sustainable system. They weren’t any stupider than we are, Diamond explains, but they had blind spots that prevented them from seeing the problems on the horizon.

I am, generally speaking, the girl who is steady in a disaster. I often have amazing powers of accepting the unpleasant and concentrating on Doing What Can Be Done. Faced with financial insolvency or medical emergencies, I go into a calm crisis-mode, not stopping to panic, looking for solutions. It’s a valuable skill. It also irritates people who do have meltdowns, who think I don’t appreciate the seriousness of a situation. That I’m in denial.

But the funny thing is, what makes me this way is that I never really forget all the bad things. They’re in the back of my mind on a pretty constant basis. I’m talking about the everyday bad things but also the horrible things, the Sudan-genocide levels of evil, pollution and global warming, loose nukes wandering out of Russia. The possibility that the policies of our current administration (that would be “Pillage, Plunder, Ignore the Problems, and Hope We’re All Dead Before the Chickens Come Home to Roost”) will send our country into a depression we can’t shrug off. I wonder if we’ll see some kind of collapse ourselves–things like breadlines and starvation, anarchy, violence, people dying for lack of medicines and shelter–not just on the small scale we see now, but in large numbers. It wouldn’t take nearly as much as we’d like to think to tip the balance. The US has been around a little over 200 years; but then the Greenland Vikings lasted 450 years before they collapsed, the Maya even longer. The successes of the past don’t protect us against the future.

And I don’t have any great illusions about my ability to survive some sort of catastrophic cultural/ecological breakdown. I’m 33 years old, have bad knees, and no particular survival skills. I’ll never be the Omega Woman. Calm determination can only get you so far. I’d be toast, like most of us, if the worst happened, whatever form that worst took.

And sometimes, like the last few weeks, with the gray skies and the frigid air and too much time to think and not enough money, calm determination goes away entirely. The dark thoughts take charge, and parade in front of me in all their horrible likelihood, making my plans and hopes seem like moving deck chairs on the Titanic. I stare into an unknown future and hope for the best, but know that it might hold the worst.

The world is at a turning point, and I want to believe it will turn the right way, that the right people, or luck, or God, will be able to keep us from the brink. But there’s no guarantee. There never has been, but then we’ve never had this much power either. In the past we could only wipe out ourselves, or those in our vicinity, or be taken out by indifferent microbes or natural disasters. Now we could take pretty much all life on earth with us, and there won’t be any coming back from that. Everything we’ve accomplished will be gone, everything we’ve loved about this planet changed. The planet may regenerate, new life might take hold, millions of years later, but none of our descendants will be around to see it. Music, mathematics, science, democracy, freedom, love, compassion, wisdom—all snuffed out. Will we be the ones to see that happen, or will our children?

I don’t want to think so. But sometimes my power of concentrating on What Can Be Done fails me, and I lose my momentum, get confused, stop being able to focus on the tasks in front of me. All I can do is look at what I’m afraid of, try to take its power away by staring it in the face, hard as that is. Not turning my back on it.

When I was a little girl, I was chased and bitten by a dog, a medium sized dog, not one that looked threatening. A dog I had played with before, that seemed friendly. But that day, the dog decided to chase me, snarling, and I turned my back and ran, and he snapped at me and tore my leg. I still have a little numb spot there, where the stitches were.

I learned that day that certain kinds of fear make things worse. Turning your back to what you fear leaves you vulnerable. No matter how afraid you are, you have to face whatever’s chasing you and grapple with it. You have to keep your eyes on it.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing with the future by thinking about these dark things and reading books like Collapse; keeping my eyes on it, trying to see what might happen. Looking for ways to prevent the worst.

There are still lots of good things in my life, and I haven’t forgotten any of them. But what I was trying to get at earlier, the part about me being calm in emergencies, is that being calm and facing down your fears is not some sort of supernatural ability to deny what’s happening. Just the opposite. It’s a choice. And in the long run, if you want to survive, it’s the only safe choice you can make.

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